Friday, August 3, 2012

Musings on Student Motivation

A  former student of mine graduated a little while ago and landed an excellent industrial job, which was his intention all along.  Getting a PhD and then moving to industry is a common path  envisioned by many students in my field, especially international ones. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to get an advanced degree and get a well-paid, highly specialized industrial job. But, in hindsight, this particular student only wanted to put in the time, be told what to do, and at the end of the day receive his degree and move on. I wish he were alone in this attitude, but I find it's fairly common.

One colleague of mine, with whose advising style I really disagree, brings armies of grad students from his home country, has them work very long hours and gather lots of data, and has them graduate in fewer years than the average. I don't think they get much, if any, training in writing papers or presenting. But, they receive training in a few advanced lab techniques and easily get jobs in industry.

I spend a lot of time teaching each student how to write papers, listening to their practice talks as I send them to present their work at international conferences... And you know what? There are some, like the former student, on whom all that appears to be wasted. He has probably given about 15 talks while in my group, and, despite multiple dry runs before every appearance, his talks are still  below average. He has published several journal papers (I think about 5-6) and writing each one of them with him was like pulling teeth, down to the very last one.

What was the point of giving this student what I consider proper PhD training? I invested a lot of energy in it, it didn't take. I trained him as I would have someone who actually wanted to learn how to do and present science, which I believe is what we should do for all our students. But, he just wanted to put in the time and get a degree, so he could get a job. He could have gotten what he wanted while working for my colleague above or someone similar, it would have taken him less time overall.

We all want students who are intrinsically motivated. I have been fortunate to have worked (still do) with students who were curious, focused, who took pride in their work and were eager to write papers and go to conferences, and who did creative, cutting-edge work for their PhDs. Most of them went on to get industrial jobs, so that in and of itself doesn't preclude a proper attitude towards a PhD.

But with this former student, he mentally checked out about 2 years before he graduated. I had a hard time getting him to do much of anything properly. We were ahead of the pack on a really interesting project, but he dragged his feet and did who knows what, and several groups scooped us. I have recently been working on the last paper from his thesis, and it was extremely frustrating how many details were missing or were sloppily derived or coded and ended up plainly incorrect.

As I wrote before, since I am in a field without rotations for incoming students and my department has few TA-ships available to them, new  students commonly join a group sight unseen; sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't. However, my policy is that if I am going to let a student go, I usually tell them it's not working out as soon as I am sure, but I keep them on until they get their Master's so they have something to show for the time with my group. But if the student stays on past the MS, then I am committed to getting them to graduate with a PhD.

So what do you do if the student totally checks out mentally in year 4 on the PhD?We have had talks and talks, but to no avail. I could not get through to him. I wasn't going to fire him, and reducing salary is pretty cruel considering graduate students are not exactly rich. Still, those student stipends are not charity. That's federal money and it comes with strings attached. Science is supposed to be done in exchange for it. Doing shoddy work hurts the project and can result in real damage to the future funding prospects of the whole research group with the funding agency and/or manager.

Regardless of what a student plans on doing after they graduate, they should have a good attitude while on the PhD. This means that they should be ready to do science and behave as scientists in training for a few years, even if they have no intentions of being scientists later on. For the students who come in just wanting to plow through to an advanced degree without straining a dendrite along the way, realistically the right thing to do would be to get the course option for a Master's degree. A PhD, however, is a research degree, and requires the mindset needed to do research, at least temporarily.

As PhD advisors as well as research project PIs, we have the sometimes competing obligations to the student and the project/own group. So what means do we have to motivate the students who are not intrinsically motivated? Especially if the motivation drops considerably after the student has put in several years already and you are committed to getting them through?


JaneB said...

You don't ask the easy questions, do you?? :-)

I don't have any answers, but I will look forward to reading other peoples' responses, as I have a fair bit of experience with the problem...

Dave said...

Your last sentence is somewhat telling. You can't be more committed to the student's degree than is the student.

At a few (n=3) institutions I have been at, there are automatic cuts to support after x years, in the form of expiration of eligibility for portions of the funding package. This can serve as a wake-up call to the student. You characterized cutting support as "cruel", but it's actually more cruel to keep students on for extra years at a grad student salary than to get them out so they can earn an industrial salary.

Anonymous said...

You characterized cutting support as "cruel", but it's actually more cruel to keep students on for extra years at a grad student salary than to get them out so they can earn an industrial salary.

Are you saying that, when a student loses motivation and starts slacking off, we should just reward them with a PhD? I've seen it often enough, graduating a student to literally get rid of them. The motivated, hard-working students are then resentful that they have to bust their butts to get the same degree as the one who got it by disappointing the adviser enough. This drags down the value of everyone's degree. And what about the actual project, which should be at least approximately completed to justify all the spending?

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post.

I agree that this kind of behavior from a graduate student in academia is unacceptable as a PhD student. However, its unrealistic to train every PhD student as if they were going to continue in academia.

Why should someone learn a specific skill set for academia if that skill set is going to make them less employable in the future?

I think graduate school would be greatly improved if we stopped trying to train everyone like they were going to be a PI.

I would greatly appreciate the ability to go in, do the work, and get out. So many graduate students get stuck turning their wheels working on projects that are not founded in good science and ultimately will not bear fruit. Many cannot leave/graduate until they "contribute" something new. Wasted years pass this way.

Below is another interesting post questioning the lack of motivation and enthusiasm:

My impression of graduate school is that you train yourself and the cream will rise to the top. It allows for the few highly self motivated and lucky people to succeed; the rest are left to drown and figure it out for themselves. This kills motivation. I have seen departments where there is no teamwork, its every woman/man for themselves. It is the equivalent to what happened with badminton in the 2012 olympics, people doing only what it takes to get to the next step with no passion for the moment. Creativity and novel ideas are punished.

I am really sorry that you had to deal with a graduate student like that, its sad because its wastes effort/time and destroys passion. The whole academic thing makes me sad. Best of luck. There are no easy answers. Academia will be the next bubble to burst.

Anonymous said...

@Anon 10:06,

You seem to have some misunderstanding about this post.

First, GMP is not talking about teaching a skill set that would make a student less employable. She is talking about training a student to write scientific papers, and give presentations. Technical writing and presentation are both essential skills which any one will find extremely useful in an industry job. I don't know any sufficiently techy industry job where you don't have to write reports or give presentations.

Second, she is also not complaining about students who are not driven enough to be PI; she is talking about students who have a bad attitude and who do sloppy and incorrect work. There is a huge difference.


Dave said...

"Are you saying that, when a student loses motivation and starts slacking off, we should just reward them with a PhD?"

No. GMP does not want to use funding for motivation. I think that her stated rationale for not doing it should lead to the opposite conclusion.

Alex said...

A program that is about learning a few techniques, generating some data, and getting out sounds more like a vocational degree than a PhD.

InBabyAttachMode said...

It's a very interesting question, and even though I'm not a PI I have seen a lot of people from the sideline that were struggling to find the motivation to finish their PhD. What often happened was that they were 'helped' a lot: their advisors would basically write their thesis for them in order to get them out of the door as fast as possible (talk about inflation of what a PhD is worth...). I don't think there's much that you can do, except maybe threaten that you won't write them good recommendation letters...

DJ said...

I find this post honestly disturbing. The tenor of the post suggests very strongly that any PhD student who graduates without academic training has wasted their degree. This is not a good attitude for a graduate supervisor to have.

I'm a mid-career tenured STEM professor. I know full well that a PhD is "supposed" to constitute training for an academic position. But it's mathematically impossible for every PhD student, or even a large fraction of PhD students, to land an academic job. The math is simple. Each faculty member graduates more than one student over the course of their career. Thus, unless the number of faculty positions grows at an exponential rate (which it does not), most PhD holders will not get academic jobs.

Under these circumstances, is it fair to fault the PhD student for seeking an industry job? Of course not. Neither should we blame them for emphasizing the parts of their education relevant to corporate work at the expense of academic skills like writing papers and giving talks. It's true that writing and speaking skills are generally useful, but you must admit that the academic incarnations of these skills are far narrower and more specialized than what the real world demands.

It's in the supervisor's best interests to have research-productive students. But this is not always in the student's best interest. I think that we faculty members need to put the student's best interests before our own.

Anonymous said...

DJ, I think the post is pretty clear that wanting/finding an industry job is not a problem per se. But one problem is the mismatch between what some students think the PhD is (an advanced vocational degree enabling them to get high pay) and what it actually is (a degree for which you need to do supervised research and advance knowledge).

It's in the supervisor's best interests to have research-productive students. But this is not always in the student's best interest. I think that we faculty members need to put the student's best interests before our own.

See, I don't understand this at all. If a student in a STEM field wants to be supported on a research assistantship during the PhD, then he or she has to do research and produce new science in return, and writing papers and presenting work are parts of disseminating new science.

How it is that we are supposed to take care of the students' best interest, other than pay them, help them network, let them get exposure at conferences? How are we supposed to train each and every one of them for "the world"? Who knows what the world will want 10 years from now. The students often don't know what they want either. The best you can do is train them to think critically, become knowledgeable in a certain area, write well, and be able to give talks. I think trying to guess what the corporate world wants or will want in the future is a fool's errand; unless a company is paying us to train their future employees, I don't see how we can or that we even should be trying to train students for that purpose.

allison stelling said...

I did a PhD quite recently (2008) in a big drug discovery lab on the east coast. My PI usually had around 20 students at any given time during the 4 years I was there earning my degree. He was, and still is, a very popular PI with students precisely because he funnels the majority of them into good, stable industry jobs. This is what they want; in fact most people in general seem to want this out of the next 30 to 50 years of their lives. This is the state of many fields right now in terms of the workforce. To get biology and medicine to the point where they are actually analytical, we'll need Staff Scientist positions similar to those the companies offer in our universities. Not grad students, not postdocs, not more professors. Staff Research Scientists with long term contracts and very few teaching or admin duties, whose only job is to do highly technical lab work and write papers and grants.

I was working on different projects for him that were more suited to an academic career track, and am finishing up my postdoc work and applying for professorships. Since the majority of people working for my PhD PI wanted an industry position, most of the career talks he gave for the group were geared towards asking what companies desired from employees. Then he'd pull me aside and help me separately, since I was crazy enough to still be interested in an academic career like his.

He would always make sure everyone could do the basic 20 to 40 min powerpoint on their thesis, but it was pretty clear that some people were better at this aspect of the job than others. He would usually politely suggest that the ones who were really bad at the science writing/presenting "graduate with a Master's". This is the skill that weeds out many people in academia; as my PI once said: "What we do for a living in incredibly complex. Our job is to make it as simple and as clear as possible." If you can't make it simple, then you're just a technical expert who knows a lot of big words and has fancy lab skills. If you can, the Editors would love to read about it.

So: I understand your frustration, but remember that NOT everyone is the next Linus Pauling or Neils Bohr, nor are we in a cold war anymore. The system needs to start taking that into account.

DJ said...

Obviously we supervisors should not try to guess what the corporate world wants or aim our PhD training towards that end. But neither should we interfere when the student attempts to direct their own training towards that end. At that point, the student is responsible for their own career.

If a student fails the minimal requirements for a PhD then obviously they should be expelled. But there is a big gap between the minimum and the ideal student. I don't think we have any right to complain when a student falls in that gap of their own volition. Even if they are funded by research assistantships, it's plain to see that not every RA-funded student can get an academic job. For students with no chance of an academic career, it makes perfect sense for them to do the minimum necessary.

Ideally, such students would filter out of the system before starting graduate school. But if they all did this, then there would be a lot fewer PhD students, which in turn causes different problems.

GMP said...

Even if they are funded by research assistantships, it's plain to see that not every RA-funded student can get an academic job.

Please, let us not beat this tired old strawman. Nobody says all students are supposed to be professors, it wasn't even implied anywhere in the post. The vast majority of my students go to industry. And it is wrong to assume that just because a student wants to work in industry that he or she is not motivated or talented for quality PhD work.

About minimum requirements: are you saying that I should not train the students at all to write and present, or that I should train them just a little bit? I really abhor the idea of using grad students like lab/data monkeys, which I see some people do, with zero training in writing or presenting (I hate it when I see a PhD student graduate with as poor of a command of written and spoken English as the day he/she arrived in the US. But I have seen it happen in data-mill labs).

Should we not make students write and present at all if they are not so inclined? Or should we only train them "a little" (whatever that means)? Give them a chance to write a couple of drafts, then rewrite them ourselves anyway? Send them to a couple of minor conferences only? Or should we try to teach each one of them as best we can to become a good technical writer and presenter?

How do we define the minimal requirements that do mean the person did a decent PhD and is not just graduating because the advisor is tired of dealing with them?

These are all important questions to ponder. Minimal criteria are not easy to define or enforce with consistency even within a single department or discipline, let alone across multiple ones...

But, the question in this post is how to motivate a student who has run out of steam a year or so before completing the work agreed upon, without threatening to cut salary or kick them out. If I understand DJ correctly, DJ advocated checking if minimal requirements have been met and graduating the student if yes. And what if not, and they have put in 3-4 years already?

Anonymous said...

But, the question in this post is how to motivate a student who has run out of steam a year or so before completing the work agreed upon, without threatening to cut salary or kick them out.

GMP, I think you are being too kind. When all fails, you can explain to them that RA funding doesn't come for free, and is only provided if they can be productive on a research project. If they are doing sloppy work, then you cannot in good conscience use tax-payer money to pay them to sit around and do nothing. If they did the same quality of work in industry, they would be immediately fired, there's no question.

Of course if the student does not shape up after several of these warnings, it would be time to let them "graduate" with a masters.

Anonymous said...

I see a few ways to deal and work with students who have low motivation.

I recommend that you find out what the student values in life. Ask her/him what she/he values and try and see if you can connect the project with your students values and perhaps how this project is allowing her/him to work with his/her values. I would also try and help the student see the big picture of what she/he is doing and why it is important; perhaps go on a field trip to where this type of technology/research may be applicable. Science is supposed to be fun.

It might be helpful to sit down with her/him and go over to the lab and hang out, run an experiment with her/him, and see where she/he is caught up. You would initially lose a lot of time doing this, but it might help in the long-run. I see a lot of students loose motivation when the feel overwhelmed or get stuck with certain bad habits/routines/experiments in grad school and no one bothers to correct them.

Second, if the student does not fit into the above category it might due to the students perceived financial state. I think one of the problems with the stipend model is the more you work, the less you get paid. Assuming you get around $25,000 a year and work 50 weeks of 40 hours that breaks down to $12.50 an hour. Now assuming said grad student is working 60 hours a week that breaks down to $8.33 an hour. The problem with this model is that poor performing graduate students are overpaid and quality performing graduate students are underpaid. If no one is willing to do the work for the amount of money you are paying, it might be necessary to increase stipend amounts to attract good students who will perform the work.

I hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:06

I agree with several parts of your post and I also try to really understand my students and work with them closely to see what they're passionate about, what they get hung-up on, etc. I also think giving them, or better yet, helping them discover for themselves the big picture meaning of their work is critical. I have to say though that your first paragraph gave me pause. See the thing is I'm an advisor and not a therapist or their mom. Students are adults and they need to find meaning in their life themselves. This can be done in part by asking these questions of themselves and talking with me - that is my role. My role is not to ask these questions for them or to search out the answers for them. At what point are we going to ask people to do some of the heavy lifting of life on their own? We clearly have abandoned the attempt in college, are we going to abandon it in grad school too? Why?

Giving students the resources to search for their own meaning in the work (or in the choice to leave that work) is wonderful. Trying to answer for them the big questions on living a meaningful life and how to work through situations that are not 'fun' is crippling to the development of a healthy adult life.

DJ said...


Every student should have the opportunity to do good work, but not all of them will succeed at it. As long as the problem cases are small in number, I find the task of dealing with them manageable.

I don't know much about your background so I can only speak for myself. I have the "advantage" of having held an industry position just prior to becoming a professor. As such, I can speak to my students with some specificity about the expectations and performance standards of an industry job. The students love these informative discussions, and for those discouraged by academia, it serves as a good motivator when I say "you need to do A, B, and C in order to make yourself attractive for corporate jobs." In such cases, I try to re-align my research around what I just told the student to do, instead of what they originally were supposed to do. This hurts my research program a little, so I try not to admit too many such students.

One good escape hatch for some students is for them simply to get hired. This varies by field, but in my area, it's not strictly necessary to have a Ph.D in order to do the kind of work that companies typically hire Ph.Ds to do. Such students might not escape with a degree, but they've undoubtedly picked up some useful skills along the way, which is what they (should have) wanted in the first place.

A truly bad student who just sucks up your time without producing anything in return does need to be threatened with termination and, if necessary, terminated. Often the threat is enough to motivate improvement. I've never had any students in this situation yet, but oddly I myself was such a student, which is how I know that this tactic works!

For tenured faculty members, a failed research project is not career-threatening. I like to give my students the freedom and responsibility to make their own decisions about their projects and, really, their lives.

Anonymous said...

People go to grad school to get jobs, not waste their time with busy work that has no applicability to real life. This is why students think professors are out of touch with reality in their ivory towers.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 5:07

Since you apparently know better than anyone about what you will or won't need in real life, by all means, don't waste your time going to graduate school. Just go get a job and blow us all away with your success.

Anonymous said...

@Anon 5:07,

Most of the graduate students I know went to graduate school because the love doing science and unfortunately many of them also went to graduate school because they did not know what else to do. Most of the people that just wanted jobs left the whole academic scene after undergrad.

If you think your work is "busy work that has no applicability to real life" please think of a better idea that is more applicable and do some preliminary work. After you get your initial results calmly explain to your advisor, why you feel that you need to change the focus of the work and show your advisor the results. You need to take charge for your education. Fight for your right to do great work. If you feel that your work is worthless do not do it.

Motivation is also related to expectations. Most graduate students have unrealistic expectations. Most forget that school is a stepping stone to what you want to do, not an end in itself. Students expect too much out of school. For example an unmotivated and un-passionate person going to graduate school because they cannot get a job will probably not be able to get a job after completing graduate school.

Interestingly, I find people with the least motivation are "domestic" students and that they feel entitled to a sense of respect and high pay for completing graduate school. I find that most of the "international" students are the ones who are willing to put in the work and hard time that is needed to finish with graduate school.

Students need admittance counseling to set their expectations straight about graduate school.

Students need to be told that:

1. Completing graduate school does not guarantee you a great paying job or a position in academia. Getting a TT position is really unrealistic. You have to be willing to sacrifice friends, family, and community for tenure. Your advisors lineage and family tree will probably be one of the main determinations on if you continue in academia.

2. You will have un-supervised freedom, with money and incredible tools at your disposal. The rewards of graduate school are equal to the work you put into it. Do not just go to school and drink coffee and surf the internet all day because no body is watching over your shoulder.

3. Graduate school is hard work. It is a labor of love. Expect a mental beating from classes, advisors, quals, etc. at the expense of spiritual and physical development.

4. Graduate school is independent research. You are an army of one, you will have to do everything yourself. Forget about teamwork.

5. You are responsible for your training. You will not be trained on what is essential for your thesis. In fact much of the training will probably confuse you. You have to actively seek out mentors and the education you need to finish.

6. You are researching the unknown. You will experience failure. Everyday. All the time, you will need to get used to it and befriend it.

7. Graduate school can make you worse off. I have heard a saying that "I have seen more lives destroyed by Physics PhDs then by drugs".

That being said, graduate school is an excellent opportunity to explore the world if you are willing to step up to the plate.

- edJum1kadted Stud3nt

Jon said...

I am pleased to be a PhD student in a field (English) in which I am able shape my own program, research, and output. I am pleased that at my institution (Memorial University) PhD students are encouraged and able to work as part-time instructors and to develop an authentic pedagogy (my own is based on Paulo Freire's). I think I would find it difficult to be a grad student in a sciences field or at an institution wherein my research and output was conditioned by my supervisor's current project or by available funding channels.

EliRabett said...

What part of give presentations and write papers DOES not describe what someone in management does. Bench jockeys can't advance.

So your basic premise is false.

DJ said...

Academic papers and academic presentations are highly technical, focused, and specialized compared to business deliverables. I know because I've done both. It's possible, even common, to be good at one without being good at the other.

Cherish said...

This is very interesting.

I guess I can only think I would what I saw done. My MS advisor was kind of overwhelmed with students when I was working with him. We were all basically left to our own devices, but he never failed to help if we requested it.

He graduated most of his students, but they weren't always on the timeline. Of course, they weren't always funded, either.

If I had a student who was being funded but was consistently not doing the work they were supposed to, there would probably have to be some talking about it...and maybe letting them go if things didn't change. It's not at all fair to the other students if you're constantly pushing this student to finish. Why shouldn't the other, motivated students, who appreciate what you're trying to teach them, have that time? Also, it's not fair to you. I know it probably doesn't look good if you don't graduate lots of students, but I doubt that is the case. Everyone is going to understand that there are some people who just stop caring. They can certainly do well enough in industry with an MS.

Anonymous said...

I think some students can be motivated by a clear sight of the finish line. Perhaps telling a student that finishing up x amount of work/running some set of experiments/analyzing and writing up some specific data sets is what remains to get the phd can get them back on the ball. I think ideally that amount of work should be what can reasonably be done in a year - less if they really get in gear. Anything more and it's too far in the "someday". Anything less would mean they've been floundering so long you just need to get them out the door. Ideally you could present this option at the end of year 3 or 4, depending on the situation and make it clear that the student's fate is in their hands. And maybe at this point it makes sense to reduce their outside presentation responsibilities in favor of getting them to write up their results.

I'm sure this wouldn't work for all students. Maybe it could motivate some of those who are interested in the skills and credential for an industry job and don't need or want the long list of publications needed for a competitive run at the academic track. As a last resort, you could announce that funding has an end date, preferably giving at least 6 months notice, if the student is hasn't improved in productivity.

EliRabett said...

DJ as Allison Sterling said

"He would always make sure everyone could do the basic 20 to 40 min powerpoint on their thesis, but it was pretty clear that some people were better at this aspect of the job than others. He would usually politely suggest that the ones who were really bad at the science writing/presenting "graduate with a Master's". This is the skill that weeds out many people in academia; as my PI once said: "What we do for a living in incredibly complex. Our job is to make it as simple and as clear as possible." If you can't make it simple, then you're just a technical expert who knows a lot of big words and has fancy lab skills. If you can, the Editors would love to read about it. "

which is why there are so many folks snoring at those incredibly highly technical, focused, and specialized academic presentations. In the words of a lot of comments, we can show you how to earn $50K a year on the internet, it's simple.

DJ said...

EliRabett, I maintain that academic presentations and academic skills are a level of difficulty above the corresponding business equivalents, even *after* being made as simple as possible. I was not ignoring the need for simple packaging, but rather assuming it had been done (I agree it is not always done).

Believe me, the same rule applies in business presentations: you make your presentation understandable. But with a less technical starting point, it can't help but be easier in a business context to achieve the desired goal.

Having been there myself, I have no illusions about how hard it is to land an excellent industry job. But GMP stated that the student in question has already landed such a job, so I can't see how this difficulty would be any issue in this case.

GMP said...

DJ, I don' t know if you blog, but if not, I would like to invite you to write a guest post on how your previous work in industry has informed your mentoring philosophy and what you feel your PhD students need to know/do in order to be competitive for well-paid industrial positions. If you are interested, please email me. Thanks!

DJ said...

GMP, I appreciate the invitation. I'll contact you privately. Cheers!